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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A judge has authorized the start of payments to American Indians in a $3.4 billion settlement involving the federal government's mishandling of land trust royalties, a law firm for the litigants said Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan authorized the firm of Kilpatrick Townsend to send the first round of $1,000 checks to about 350,000 beneficiaries, attorney Keith Harper said.

Harper said the firm was working "non-stop to get this first round of checks to as many class members as possible before Christmas."

The settlement is one of the biggest ever involving the U.S. government. It stemmed from a lawsuit originally filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont.

The Blackfeet leader observed that those who leased Indian land made money from its natural resources while the Indians remained in poverty with no accounting of royalties held in trust for them by the government.

Cobell led the fight against the government for more than 15 years before she died of cancer last year.

The settlement involves American Indians across the nation and the government over more than a century's worth of royalties. Congress approved the deal in December 2010.

The agreement will pay out $1.5 billion to two classes of beneficiaries.

Each member of the first class will be paid $1,000. Each member of a second class will be paid $800 plus a share of the balance of settlement funds based on activity in their trust accounts.

Another $1.9 billion will be used by the government to purchase land allotments for tribes and create an education scholarship for young Indians.

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